"Colour fades as flavour deepens." Nigella Lawson
This is Jamie Oliver's interpretation of Brown Windsor soup (with pearl barley). The pearl barley is probably an addition of his own, but then again is it? Because actually it seems there is no such thing as Brown Windsor soup. So anything goes - although it should be brown surely. It says it is.
I can't remember now where the inspiration for this post came from. All I know is that recently two or three times I have come across a mention of Brown Windsor soup, often in association with The Reform Club in London, which I think was an Edwardian instutution. It probably still exists - the club - not the soup.
I must admit I thought that there was a Victorian and even Indian connection but apparently not. However, I was also aware that Brown Windsor soup was frequently the butt of all those jokes about awful English food.
And it turns out that it that's exactly where it was born - as a joke - most famously on The Goon Show but in many other shows from the same era - the Carry On shows, Fawlty Towers. All those shows in which the British so bravely make fun of themselves and their institutions. And, I guess, always with a smidgin of truth at the core. Well this seems to be the current theory of origins anyway although there is some argument about who first started making the jokes.
The myth is that it is a soup devised by Queen Victoria's most famous chef - Francatelli - and that she loved it. Not true. He devised a soup made with calf's feet called Calf's feet soup à la Windsor or Potage Windsor for the queen. It was a white soup not a brown one, and alas I cannot find a picture of it. Brown Windsor soup does not appear anywhere until those jokes it seems, although there is/was Windsor Soup that you could even buy in cans, and which I vaguely remember. Did we have Brown Windsor soup at school? No I don't think so, largely because we didn't really have soup, although we would have had brown stews, and Brown Windsor soup as it is now accepted to be, is basically a thick beef stew, possibly flavoured with marsala or sherry. Which is very British Empire isn't it?
Another suggestion that varies from the joke theory is that in 19th century at the same time as Francatelli was making his Potage à la Windsor there was Old Brown Windsor Soap. Soap not soup. Somehow or other the two became muddled together to produce the idea of Brown Windsor Soup. Maybe the association with soap confirmed the horror of the dish. Nevertheless there is no confirmed publication of the name until perhaps in the 1920s. And that isa bit iffy too. Another fact I learnt which has nothing to do with soup but is associated, is that the House of Windsor was not called the House of Windsor until 1910 - after Victoria's death when it was changed from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha - Prince Albert's home - to the House of Windsor because of WW1. An association with Germany was not appropriate.
I vaguely remember eating something that may have been called Brown Windsor Soup on my father's P&O ships - the cooks were Indian, and we should probably have eaten the curries, which they of course ate - but they also cooked poorly executed English food. And this soup may have been one of them. When my father was in port we would often visit the ships he was on and sometimes eat there. I also remember on our emigration flight to Australia, which was grounded in Delhi for 36 hours, that the restaurant of the very grand hotel to which we were shipped out, served appalling English food. It was so bad I refused to eat one meal and stayed in our room until David returned and said that we could also have real Indian food, which was of course divine.
So yes Brown Windsor soup was much mocked, so much so that the joke invented the dish - 'life imitating art' as one writer said. It came to be everything that the world thought about English food.
I have to say that when I was searching for recipes, some of them were pretty awful.
Take this for example from Foods of England (which does however give you the whole history of the dish).
1 pint brown beef gravy
1 teaspoon malt vinegar
2 peppercorns, crushed
1 oz dark dried fruit (figs, dates, tamarind)
Small glass of Madeira, warm
Splinge everything, bar the drink, up in one of those machines until smooth. Re-heat and serve with an inadeqate sprinkle of parsley and, separately, a small glass of hot Madeira to be added to the soup by the diner."
Splinge? - what a lovely word. And its use would make you wonder whether this recipe is a bit of a joke. I mean what a weird hotch potch of ingredients.
Or, very similarly:
"A shortcut has been suggested by a bit of a wag. Take the leftovers of Sunday’s roast beef, including vegetables and gravy and give them a whirl in a blender. Then add a dollop of sherry." Delishably
The interesting thing about that though is that the current craze - a very worthwhile one I have to say - for using up leftovers in inventive was plays right into that particular notion. One man's joke is another man's earnest waste not want not mission.
The thing is that I do have vague memories of eating Brown Windsor soup - in some kind of puréed form and that I did actually quite like it. But why not? Fundamentally it's a thinnish beef stew. Indeed is it a soup anyway. Isn't it rather a stew? And my mother made lovely beef stews with the poorest of cuts.
No Brown Windsor Soup, it seems, is not an actual dish, but rather a synonym for what people think English food is. Awful. Which it isn't. It's image has sunk so deeply into our psyche that only the brave - Jamie Oliver and the three below James Martin, The Past on a Plate, and a website called Delishably dare to offer a recipe with that name. And to be honest, none of them look all that wonderful do they?
Nigella Lawson has a wonderful essay called In Defence of Brown Food in her latest book Cook, Eat, Repeat which has some great things to say about this. At the risk of infringing copyright here is some of what she says:
"To the naked eye, brown food is beautiful: rich warm, and full of depth and subtle variegation. None of this can be easily caught on camera; all that richness, all that warmth, all that promise of deep flavour from long slow cooking is flattened by the inexpert lens, which turns the stew's meaty liquid disturbingly to cold glassiness."
And what food looks like is so important in these days of Instagram and TikTok. She goes on to say:
"many people, shuddering at memories of the gristle and gloop ladled out menacingly in their childhood, are put off stews for life. It's true: a bad stew, floury and flavourless, the meat piled in the liquid until each chunk curls up in dedicated defence, is an emetic proposition."
And so you don't see 'brown' or 'stew' often in the title of recipes these days. They put people off.
"Everything has to make a statement these days all of the time (including us) and brown food most definitively doesn't do that: it gently beckons us with a whisper rather than a shout. And the truth is, we need the calm that it bestows. The vibrant, the splendid, the sprightly and bright: all these have a place at the table, but not at the cost of cosier, quieter pleasures."
Bearing those words in mind, I was about to give up on my search for the ultimate Brown Windsor soup (I think Jamie wins by the way), when I came across this Beef and vegetable soup, which fundamentally, from all that I have read about what Brown Windsor soup might be, is Brown Windsor soup. And it looks great, although perhaps more like a stew than a soup. And it's from Australia's own Recipe Tin Eats. You can watch her make it on this video. It's brown and it's beef and vegetables. There is even flour and Guinness in it - an update on the Madeira, although you could swap to whatever alcohol you fancy. Nagi obviously sees the virtue of avoiding 'brown', 'stew, 'Windsor' and 'British' in her title though.
Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall - a pillar of British food, has no recipe (and neither does Nigel Slater), but he is a fan of soup:
"I reckon a great soup has the power to lift my mood more than any other dish. It's partly because you can't eat a hot soup quickly – or at least you'd be a fool to try. Soup encourages you to slow down, sip, sup, savour, linger a little longer. And if that's not the perfect recipe for a great weekend, I don't know what is" Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Very appropriate for a cold and wet winter's day in Melbourne. We are picking up our grandsons from their soccer practice this evening and minding them overnight whilst their parents party at leaving their last job. They will be cold, wet and tired. It will be dark. They may be wet, but I confess I am thinking along the lines of chicken curry. I don't think they like soup.